The issue of North Korea's development of nuclear weapons has now taken on the aspect of a game played out between major powers. The United States and China look to be seeking last-minute discussions on how to respond. While China cannot stop the US from employing military force against North Korea, it has been trying to impose conditions on any use of such force, either to minimise the impact on Chinese security or to ensure the outcome would work in China's favour.
If those conditions are met, China may give tacit approval to the US using military force against North Korea. There are two key conditions: to have North Korea remain as a buffer zone, and to remove the source of trouble. In other words, while China would not abide by the US invading and occupying North Korea, it would also not accept incomplete military action - such as limited air strikes - that leaves the Kim Jong Un regime and its nuclear weapons intact.
The conditions, that the US leave North Korea as a buffer zone for China while eliminating Mr Kim and the North's nuclear weapons, are likely to be acceptable to the US as well. The US military would no longer have a reason to station forces in South Korea, and, at this stage, the US is not seeking unification of the Korean Peninsula due to the severe economic burden it would place on South Korea and other countries.
An operation to carry out large-scale air strikes over a short period of time to completely destroy the North Korean leadership and its ability to mount a counter-offensive might satisfy those conditions. The use of special forces to kill or capture Mr Kim and destroy nuclear facilities is also highly likely, because aerial bombardment alone would not guarantee the desired outcome. Even so, such actions would not constitute a large-scale invasion by ground troops.
Having ignored China's advice to "embrace policies of reform and openness and strive for social stability" and opting instead to brandish nuclear weapons, North Korea has become a threat to China's safety. But if the US only carried out limited air strikes in a half-hearted manner, Mr Kim and his nuclear arsenal would survive, and end up becoming hostile towards a China that had allowed the US to use military force.
For this reason, if the US does employ military force, China will ask it to bring about a swift resolution to the issue in the form of a large-scale bombing campaign. In this way, both powers will decide on the use of military force against North Korea and its handling thereafter.
It has been reported that US President Donald Trump will visit Asia from Nov 3 to 14, with stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. If Mr Trump visits Japan and South Korea first and then moves on to China, it would suggest that the US will let its allies in on what the upcoming discussions will entail before the meeting with China. It also suggests that the US' intentions will not change considerably as a result of talks with China.
While it is customary for political leaders and high-level officials from the US to first visit allies Japan and South Korea, when General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a round of visits to North-east Asia in August, he visited China first, followed by South Korea and Japan. At this point, it may have been necessary to report to allies Japan and South Korea on the details of discussions with China, insofar as they relate to military action.
Meanwhile, North Korea is forced to rely on another major power: Russia. The North is hoping that Russia will keep the US in check, and Russia is happy to see the North Korea issue draw out as that raises its own influence in North-east Asia.
On Sept 26, Ms Choe Sun Hui, who heads the North Korean Foreign Ministry's US affairs department, arrived in Moscow. On Sept 29, she held talks with Mr Oleg Burmistrov, the ambassador-at-large responsible for Korean Peninsula issues at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While details of what they discussed have not been made known, it is conceivable that North Korea asked Russia to exert its influence so that it can enter into dialogue, and for US military force not to be on the negotiating table.
Three major powers, the US, China and Russia, are responding to North Korea's development of nuclear weapons in line with their respective expectations, but among them it is the US that holds the key, because only America possesses the ultimate means to force North Korea to surrender its nuclear arsenal. However, if the US considers a response based only on its own security, it may quietly accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. As well as leaving Japan and China high and dry, that would cause the regional security situation to deteriorate even further.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2017, with the headline 'Major powers play games over North Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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